Atomic Blonde is the Most Important Feminist Movie of 2017. And Possibly Ever.
(I am absurdly pleased to host this post (with the most) on my blog. These are not my words, but I am 100% behind them. I am also proud to have something worth reading on my blog for a change.)
Hi, I’m Jules. I’m Alan’s wife and I’m writing a guest blog here instead of on my own blog because I just got a job that requires me to interact with folks in DC and now I’m paranoid about the people I work with finding it. It’s not that I think they’d take issue personally with the content, it’s just that the things I have to say about this aren’t the most professional things I’ve ever said. So with that disclaimer, here we go!
So the year is 2017 and apparently, Charlize Theron only makes badass lady movies now. Let me be (probably not) the first to say that I am 100% here for that. Mad Max: Fury Road was hailed as a feminist masterpiece, which it unequivocally was. It was also just a really fabulous action movie and, considering it was a reprisal of an 80’s franchise, that’s pretty impressive. But I’m here to talk about Theron’s most recent empowering bombshell, Atomic Blonde, which is in a whole different class. It’s not set in a post-apocalyptic desert world, it’s set in late eighties Berlin. It’s fiction, sure, but it’s not exactly fantasy. That very fact is groundbreaking in terms of the portrayal of strong women.
I was struck by how much this movie spoke to me. I was expecting a lady version of John Wick, which the film delivered, but I think I underestimated the significance of that, and the significance of some of the nuance of Lorraine Broughton’s character. And maybe you’ll finish this and go, “Man, she was reading a lot into that puff piece of a movie,” and you’re entitled to that opinion. But to me, this movie said some very important things that all women, even this empowered, feminist, 21st century woman, still needed to hear. Things like:
- You can be strong and real and still be attractive.
When Wonder Woman came out, women everywhere rejoiced at Gal Gadot’s strength and beauty. We all bore witnesses to the thigh jiggle that shook the world, and I know many people who grew up in oppressive, misogynist households who were moved by the idea that a woman could be a strong, self-assured heroine. I don’t want to discount how important that is, especially in the superhero world where we’d had literally zero heroine driven movies thus far. That being said, I wasn’t particularly moved. Gal Gadot is a svelte stunner whose fighting powers came from superhuman strength and quite a bit of CGI. I found the narrative of her character inspiring, but her actions less so—they were just too fake. And yes, that’s the superhero genre for you and I do accept that it has its limits when it comes to realism, but I wanted more from a heroine.
Then in walks Lorraine Broughton: tall, bottle blonde, bruised, and broad shouldered. Her physique is enviable, but not unattainable. Like any real life human being, she doesn’t get out of her bath looking like a super model and when she gets hit in the mouth, there’s blood in her teeth. She hides her physical imperfections in black clothing like the rest of us. The choreography that goes into her fight scenes is based on the laws of physics and Charlize Theron’s physical capabilities. She grunts when she throws a wounded man over her shoulder and down a flight of stairs. She makes ugly faces. She’s female badassery incarnate walking around East Berlin in a black double breasted Max Mara coat.
Why this is important: Up to now, our examples of female badassery have existed in a realm of unattainable physical perfection at all times, and I’m not just talking about in the movies. The foremost female entertainers of our era have been harshly criticized for folding belly skin (Gaga) and unflattering angles (Beyonce) while performing truly spectacular feats of musicality and athleticism on the national or world stage. This is an echo of a sentiment modern women are confronted with constantly: “do all the things, be incredible, but the most important thing is to look perfect.” It’s the reason most women know their “skinny angles” and obsess over their hair and makeup even when they’re going to the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, make up is fun and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look nice, but when you’re Black Widow or Lara Croft and your hair is always perfect no matter how many henchmen you’ve dispatched, it makes me feel like a little bit of a failure that my hair can’t even take on humidity.
In that respect, Lorraine Broughton is the modern woman’s practical dream. Of course, she looks awesome when she leaves her hotel. She has a drawer full of Dior makeup and wears some of the finest clothes and shoes money can buy, but after killing four dudes, she has blood in her hair and on her sweater because shit happens when you’re kicking ass. “But Jules,” you say, “Black Widow, Lara Croft, Wonder Woman— these are fantasy characters. It’s hardly fair to expect realism from fantasy.” And you’re right, it’s true. And that is precisely why this is so important— that’s literally all we’ve had so far when it comes to seeing women being badass: fantasy. We haven’t even had James Bond or Jason Bourne or John Wick. The closest we’ve come are love interest/side kick roles like Emily Blunt in Live. Die. Repeat. Look, I know all movies are fantasy in some respects, but Atomic Blonde goes further than any heroine movie before it in saying that you can be a real life badass who grunts like a wildebeest and 10/10 would still bang.
P.S. If you’d like to get a little behind the scenes glimpse of how much of this character’s badassery was based on Theron’s physical abilities, watch this video (and fall in love with her a little).
And I want to go off on a little tangent here about the pain and physical realism of John Wick and Atomic Blonde because YES. THANK YOU. This is so refreshing. For Thor and Captain America, I get it. But if you’re James Bond, you’re not superhuman. When someone throws you out a window, you better not hop back up. You do not have an exoskeleton. This isn’t so much an empowerment thing, just a realism one that used to really bother me about action movies and it’s fixed now if your movie is directed by David Leitch. So thanks, David. Moving on.
- You can be sexy and still be respected.
Atomic Blonde does not slack on the sex appeal by any stretch of the imagination. Again, the wardrobe is to die for if you’re a fan of fashion and all of Lorraine’s choices look like Frank Miller meets John Galliano. And they vary: she wears fishnets and thigh high boots when she’s walking around East Berlin, and she wears a gorgeously tailored tweed pantsuit to see her boss at MI6, showing that like any modern woman, she understands the importance of occasion. That said, she spends most of the film, and most of her time kicking ass, in aforementioned over the knee boots, short skirts, and blouson dresses with body con bottoms. This isn’t in and of itself groundbreaking – women in sexy outfits are a Hollywood mainstay – but it is groundbreaking that her sexiness is just a part of who she is as a character, not the whole damn thing.
A lot of times we see sexy women used as unimportant decoration (Bond girls), villainous femme female vipers (the other kind of Bond girls), or clearly gorgeous, strong female leads stifling their sexiness in order to be taken seriously/still be considered moral (take your pick of any female protagonist pretty much ever). Lorraine Broughton shatters all of those tropes like they’re the tibias of KGB operatives. She absolutely OWNS her sexuality. She has a pocket in her thigh high stocking for a tape recorder, for the love of god. You can tell by the way she strides in her boots that they give her a “zero fucks given” kind of confidence and something tells me that’s exactly the kind of confidence you need to be a deadly super spy. Also, thinking about it, I imagine that she probably also uses the “distraction” of her sex appeal her advantage. It stands to reason that if you’re idiotic enough to be focused on getting a glimpse of her underwear when she’s kicking ass in a skirt, you’re probably gonna find yourself with a footprint on your fucking forehead.
Why it’s important: I would wager that almost every woman over the age of 18 has been told to cover it up at some point, whether it’s an overt reprimand or a friend throwing out a super subtle “wow, you’re really letting the girls out tonight, aren’t you?” I’m sure by now you’ve seen all of the hubbub about school dress codes and their inherent sexism, but in case you missed it, here’s the gist: Women are told from an early age to stifle their sexuality because it’s “distracting” to others. That it’s less important to feel attractive, confident, and wear what you want to wear than it is to blend in and not cause any kind of reaction. I myself was 12 years old the first time an adult (my middle school nurse) told me what I was wearing was inappropriate. More accurately, she told me, “zip up that hoodie, this isn’t Baltimore Street.” (for non-Marylanders, Baltimore Street is where all the hookers and strip clubs are in Downtown Baltimore). Cute, right? Now, I get it, school is not the place to be wearing super sexy things (like a fucking hoodie with a tank top underneath), but let’s be real, this does not end when you leave the classroom—it just starts there. As a woman, you get judged for wearing sexy things anywhere, at any age, and that shit has to stop.
We all clearly like sexy things and feeling sexy. I’m not saying that everyone should start wearing their finest lingerie to work, but maybe we need to stop judging women by their hemlines and necklines. Maybe both men and women need to stop reacting to sexy women as either pervs, prudes, or catty competitors. It’s high time we recognized that a woman’s sexiness is not indicative of anything else: her intelligence, her respectability, her personality, or her openness to interacting with you in any capacity. Women are allowed to be sexy and nothing hammered that home more than Lorraine Broughton’s badass leather and lace aesthetic. She’s sexy and intelligent and in charge, and if you’re only focused on the sexy part, you’re missing the majority of what’s special about her. Watching her made me realize something I probably already knew deep down, but nonetheless needed to hear: we all deserve to walk with the confidence of an ass kicking super spy in thigh high boots. #fuckthehaters
- You can be bisexual. Period.
Despite this being a spy movie and clearly very fictional in that way, the portrayal of Lorraine as a bisexual woman is one of the best, most accurate portrayals of a bisexual woman I’ve seen pretty much anywhere in mainstream movies. There are allusions to her relationship with Gascoin, but her relationship with LaSalle is the one we actually see. The sex scene between them is not gratuitous. While Broughton is taller, older, broader shouldered, and fairly dominant, she’s not masculinized. It’s clear Broughton genuinely cares about LaSalle and at the same time, it’s clear she had strong feelings for Gascoin. Her bisexuality is not a drunken night, it’s not a question mark, it’s a statement.
And it’s a short statement, at that. The biggest thing that I love about the way they portrayed her sexuality is that it’s not really a big thing at all. It’s a short scene in a long movie. LaSalle and Broughton have a relationship, but it’s not a relationship that defines either one of them to a huge extent. It’s a facet of their personalities, but as agents entangled in a very intricate web of international espionage, there’s a lot more interest in other aspects of their lives.
Why it’s important: Bisexual women are underrepresented in film and simultaneously fetishized, which spreads misinformation. If I’m being 100% honest here, in my experience, bisexual women aren’t even well-represented in the LGBT community in real life. In law school, I was lucky enough to be good friends with another bisexual woman and we bemoaned this issue over many a glass of red wine. Lesbian women generally treat bi women as if they are going through a phase and straight men usually respond with “that’s hot” or “how about a threesome.” And while not all straight women think this way, it’s been my experience that many straight women seem to think that bi women are not actually bi, but just saying they are for male attention. So, to recap, if you’re a bisexual woman, you’re fetishized on screen, only nominally accepted in the LBGT community, and perceived as either naive, a slut, or a desperate attention seeker. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? All that because you’re attracted to people’s personalities, not just their parts.
After 10 years of that, you might imagine a self-assured, strong female character being unapologetic and genuine in her sexual relationships with both men and women is particularly gratifying to see on screen. And you’d be right. It fucking is. Her bisexuality isn’t questioned or fetishized. It just is. And, like the way she dresses, it doesn’t define her, it’s just one part of her entire badass personhood, as unflinching as the gun in her hand.
- We don’t need a female James Bond.
Ok, this one is less important from a personal female empowerment standpoint, but still worth taking away. If you’ve ever actually read Ian Fleming, you know that James Bond is VERY 1950’s, and no, not in the charming, rose-colored glasses, rat pack kind of way. More in the chauvinist, racist, actually uses the phrase “the sweet tang of rape” to describe having sex with arguably the only Bond girl he ever felt something for kind of way. He’s the worst. And before you’re all, “But Jules, the character has evolved,” let’s remind ourselves that even Daniel Craig’s Bond is still using beautiful women as plot devices with limited lifespans. It’s as inherent to the character as tuxedos and martinis.
Now, I enjoy James Bond movies for what they are: time capsules. And hey, even in 2017, not every woman is an empowered boss lady. Some women still want to be Bond girls, and some men still want to treat women like Bond girls. While one might disagree with that… vehemently… we should acknowledge that it’s a market that will nevertheless demand to be served.
That being said, I think the people who wanted to see a lady Bond should move on, and when I say that that I mean move on UP. Not because Bond is sacred, not because Gillian Anderson isn’t up to it because she absolutely is, but because we’ve just seen an unquestionable upgrade in Lorraine Broughton. She kicks the crap out of Bond as a character. She’s sexier, arguably better at hand to hand combat, and clearly five steps ahead of everyone else in the espionage game. She’s smoother than smooth— she doesn’t just get the girl, she gets the girl while charming the enemy, gets information from the girl, sleeps with the girl more than once, and genuinely gives a crap when something happens to the girl. She doesn’t slap anyone for being hysterical, she doesn’t mistreat her co-workers, and even though she’s in charge of keeping Spyglass safe, she never once tries to fuck him because maybe, idk, she doesn’t believe in abusing her situational authority. Plus, I don’t remember Bond taking tea with the Queen, though that’s probably for the best because I feel like he’d probably try to fuck her, too.
If you’re not convinced, just go ahead and google “James Bond slaps woman gif.” The sheer volume of choices should convince you that this character is beyond redemption when it comes to misogyny. So even though I think Gillian Anderson deserves her own action series, we can do better than Bond. As of last Friday, we have Lorraine Fucking Broughton as the foundation for lady super spies and the patron saint of female badassery. And even if we only get one movie, I’ll take Blonde over Bond any day.